Innovating Creatively in Fresno County’s “Backyard”

Innovating Creatively in Fresno County’s “Backyard”

“I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121.1–2, NRSV).

What does it look like to innovate creatively for the School of Humanities, Religion & Social Sciences (HRSS)? Let me share just one reflection that mirrors a more general line of inquiry that HRSS faculty regularly explore about how we might more effectively reshape and retool the core learning objectives of a liberal arts education.

Fresno County boasts one of the most awe-inspiring “backyards” on our planet—from groves of Giant Sequoias and Redwoods to the distinctive Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. Among FPU employees are many avid hikers, climbers, cyclists, birdwatchers and photographers who take advantage of these gifts in creation. For the past two years, several FPU faculty have been dreaming about what it might look like to take the intellectual and spiritual inquiries of our classrooms into that amazing “outdoor classroom.” Over time, an interdisciplinary vision for transformative wilderness education has been growing and evolving: beginning with a small “High Sierra” pilot project in the summer of 2018, we now offer several immersive summer wilderness experiences, a general education course introducing wilderness studies and skills (WILD 100) and even an academic minor in wilderness studies. Most recently, the generosity of a small group of partners who support this vision has made a “base lodge” in Wawona, CA, available to our students and faculty from which to launch a variety of wilderness learning experiences. Standing on the balcony of the yet-to-be-named lodge just last night, I reflected on the amazing journey of our faculty as they embraced the work of innovating our educational efforts with creativity and rigor. Two features of this innovation struck me as being particularly expressive of the Fresno Pacific Idea:

  • Collaboration: the experiences and courses of study available to students in the FPU Wilderness Program include biology, environmental studies, theology, philosophy, literature, ethnic studies, art (photography and drawing) and psychology. This list is not exhaustive, but it represents the wide range of learning opportunities available to our students; perhaps even more importantly, our students see modeled the kind of cooperation and interpersonal engagement between and with our faculty that gives their learning lifelong value!
  • Community: this effort to embed education in creation, to integrate our faith and learning with the surrounding environment, has only been possible because many people believed in, and contributed to, the dream of an “outdoor classroom.” In the process, participants experience genuine community—the kind of community that seeks to reach beyond itself. Just this past week, our wilderness program staff secured a partnership with a neighborhood school to provide at-risk elementary school children and youth immersive “day-camp” style experiences in Fresno County’s amazing “backyard.” This work of developing creative educational opportunities for our neighbors and community partners is part of what is means to “do justice” and live as responsible members of our wider community.

The other night, as I stood on the deck of the new “base lodge” with Nathan Carson, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy and director of our wilderness program, I asked him how he would describe or summarize all of this effort. He smiled and answered in one (creatively innovated) word—“Eco-shalom.”

May it be so!


Ron Herms, Ph.D.

Dean, School of Humanities, Religion & Social Sciences